Merit Pay clears legislature; Scott will sign

Tallahassee, FL – The Florida House of Representatives has approved a proposal by a vote of 80 to 39 to tie teacher pay to student test scores. It's similar to one passed last year that was vetoed by former Governor Charlie Crist. Opponents like Democrat Franklin Sands of Broward, say it means educational Armageddon for Florida. But Governor Rick Scott supports the bill and he says he'll sign it when it gets to his desk.

Senate Bill 736 is changing the way the state pays, hires, fires, and evaluates its teachers. No more will they be promoted based on how long they've been on the job. Instead, those evaluations will be tied to how much their students learn. And those learning gains make up half a teacher's evaluation. Republican State Representative Eric Fresen of Miami has been carrying the bill through the house.

"Irrespective of which side of the isle you sit on or which study you read, there's one thing that's conclusive on all sides of the research. And that is that teacher effectiveness is the most influential school- level variable that determines student learning. A student's growth, a student's success is directly tied to a teacher's effectiveness."

Under the bill teachers already in the system would be offered a choice to remain on a tenured track, or give up tenure in exchange for the opportunity to earn more money. But for new teachers hired after July 2011, tenure is will be a thing of the past. They'll be placed on annual contracts, and their pay will be determined by their evaluations. Teachers who receive effective and highly effective scores stand to earn more money. But Key West Democrat and former budget chief Ron Saunders wants to know who's going to pay for the salary increases.

"Usually in the staff analysis there's a detailed financial fiscal impact statement, but when I look at this one I don't see any numbers. So, what is the cost for increased teacher pay, in other words, if we're going to pay teachers more, where is that money coming from and how much is it going to cost?"

The Florida Department of Education has run the numbers for Miami Dade, which is the largest school district in the state. And at a State Board of Education Meeting, Board member Roberto Martinez presented the numbers to Governor Rick Scott's education budget chief.

"In the case of Miami Dade County a good teacher with a patchwork of evaluations, could earn 90-thousand after 10 years, whereas in the current schedule it's about half of that. Now that's certainly a great public policy, But in order to make it a reality it has to be funded. The teacher bill is good, but it requires funding. And it has to be fully funded in order to be effective."

Back in the House Democratic Representative Jeff Clemens highlighted what he feels is a glaring omission of dollars for merit pay.

"Representative Fresen, at the risk of making sure I don't incur the wrath of the rules chair, I just want to make sure I'm asking this the right way, instead of asking you specifically about whether or not there's money there, can you tell me why the decision was made to draft a merit pay bill without any merit pay?

The bill calls for paying the best teachers more, and the earnings potential is something supporters of the proposal highlight. But the state is carrying a 3.6-billion dollar budget deficit, and education is looking at a billion-plus dollar budget cut this year. And when asked about how to fund the measure, House bill sponsor Representative Eric Fresen says the bill doesn't say how much or when salary increases are given.

"All we've done is describe how those salary increases much be prioritized. So rather than applying those salary increases to those in the system the longest, we're simply stating those increases have to be given to those teachers ranked highly effective first, and then, if there's money left over, to those teachers ranked effective, next."

The bill comes after the state received a 700-million dollar grant from the federal government to improve the quality of teachers in public schools. Teacher quality has been a focal point of President Barack Obama's education agenda, and is something that's gained traction in the states. Last year, Tennessee and Delaware passed bills limiting the length of teacher contracts and tying salaries to student test scores. Idaho is also taking up a similar piece of legislation as well.